A Yankee Notebook

February 6, 2017


MONTPELIER – For several years on the storytelling circuit I was able to get good comic mileage out of associating the Boston Red Sox with the New England climate. The Sox, you will recall, hadn’t won a World Series title since 1916, but somehow retained the ability to threaten again and again to do it again. They were forever hurling themselves against the adamantine wall of their favorite nemesis, the New York Yankees. Every spring, sports pundits and press agents played the Winter Haven Symphony, subtitled “19 [fill in the year] is the season they’ll finally do it again!” It was heavy on tympani and portentousness, like a Wagnerian opera, and thousands of us actually allowed ourselves to fall for it.

Alas, to no avail. In spite of rosters studded like a night sky with stars like Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, Jim Rice, and Carlton Fisk, they always came up short. “The Chicago Cubs are a farce,” opined one sportswriter, “but the Boston Red Sox are a tragedy.” I can still see as clearly as if it were yesterday the ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s ankles at first base; it wakes me in the night, grinding my teeth.

We New Englanders, however, had pretty much gotten used to it – just as we’ve always put up with abnormal sugaring seasons (if you think of it, we’ve never had an average one), summers that were too wet or too dry, hay that was too poor to feed or too expensive to buy, roads and driveways as slick in season as beaver slides, black flies and mosquitoes, and finger cracks. New England was our chosen home, for better or worse, like a marriage, and the Red Sox expressed perfectly both our naive hopes and keen disappointments. They drove us crazy, but we’d defend them to the death in response to snickers from folks from away.

This past Sunday evening’s football game was a perfect incarnation of the character that we so much embody and honor here in what the rest of the world considers the blue-state liberal elite center of the East Coast. In a little less than four hours – as opposed to the decades during which the Red Sox did the same – the New England Patriots, a name that’s usually underappreciated and rarely conjured with, even in these days of chest-beating nativism, ran their fans through the wringer of emotions that explains better than anything else why our default mode here in the chilly swamps and bushes is irony – even an often bitter irony.

For some unexplained reason, I have an allergy to dramatic tragedy. The great Doctor Samuel Johnson suffered from it, too, which gives me some comfort. I can’t stand to watch the inexorable and inevitable declines of Macbeth, Othello, Oedipus, or Willy Loman. Owing to this affliction, I find the Patriots almost excruciating to watch; their against-all-odds come-from-behind heroics are probably dangerous to my heart, which has now been beating longer than the average life expectancy for my demographic, and therefore commands a bit of consideration.

This past Sunday’s game, however, was such a blowout in the first half that there was clearly no possible hope of a comeback; the score at half-time was just depressing as hell.  Mother and I were watching it together in the common room of her nursing home, which has a nice six-foot screen. When she’d suggested it, I asked if there was likely to be pizza or finger food. Well, she answered, sometimes they do have snacks. So it was settled; we were there. But we’d reckoned without the average bedtime of the patients, which seems to be somewhere around seven; so we were alone in the big room, and sans refreshments.

The oddsmakers had the Patriots the victors by eight points, so I approached the game with the same equanimity I felt as we approached the last national election day. With the same result: calamity. “I don’t know what team Bill Belichick was getting the Patriots ready to play the last two weeks,” tweeted one disgruntled fan, “ but it sure wasn’t the Falcons.”

They were creaming us, and we turned the ball over twice, leading to a Falcons touchdown each time. As half-time approached, and with Mother losing interest, I said, “I can’t stand it any more. I’m going home. I’ll watch ‘Victoria’ on PBS.” Even the thought that the British drama would soon be in reruns, and this game never would be, wasn’t enough to slow me down. Who’d ever want to see this again?

“Victoria” was lovely, as usual. Afterward, just out of morbid curiosity, I checked Facebook to see how badly we’d been beaten. The site was aflame with wild expressions of delight. But in this day of fake news and unreliable sources, I couldn’t believe it, and checked several other sources. The Brady Bunch had done it again, this time breaking a few records in the process and generally stunning everybody.  Apparently, Coach Belichick had even almost avoided overtime with one of his trademark trick plays as time ran out.

I’ve watched the second half highlights a few times now on YouTube, rather shamefacedly acknowledging that I’d deserted the lads in their hour of distress. And lads is what they are, most of them – hardly older than our grandchildren. But somehow they managed to hope, against almost impossible odds, that the game could be saved. Owner Robert Kraft, during that awful first half, covered his face with his hands, too mortified to look. Elation was only an hour or so away.

We have no way of knowing how the Atlanta fans must feel this week; but here in New England, we’ve been given a lesson in pulling up our socks and persevering. Very timely, eh?

Photo by Willem lange